Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for August, 2016

South Sudan crisis: a failure of a half-hearted international community?

The United Nations has issued a stark warning that South Sudan is facing a growing humanitarian crisis even in areas that had previously been stable.

With much of the world’s media focusing on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this latest UN alert has got a little lost in all the noise, even though the UN’s top humanitarian official, Stephen O’Brien isn’t mincing his words.

“Let me be clear”, he told journalists in New York last week, “people in South Sudan are not just fleeing their homes because they need food, shelter or medical care and school for their children. They are fleeing [because they] fear for their lives”.

This sudden worsening is the result of the collapse a month ago of the truce between forces supporting the President, Salva Kir, and his deputy, Vice President Riek Machar, which also saw the killing and rape of civilians – including those seeking protection from UN peacekeepers.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s only existed for five years since breaking away from Sudan after a long, bloody conflict in July 2011.

But instead of celebrating their independence, many people have been packing up what belongings they can and trying to escape the violence.

Since the civil war between followers of Kir and Machar broke out at the end of 2013, 900,000 people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with 100,000 more fleeing in the past month alone, mainly to Uganda.

Inside the country, another 1.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes and are internally displaced.

All this out of a population of just over 12 million.

It is easy to blame South Sudanese politicians for what’s happening – and the government’s refusal so far to agree to the UN Security Council despatching reinforcements to the UNMISS peacekeeping mission with a tougher mandate to protect civilians, only underlines that.

But responsibility for the unfolding disaster in South Sudan can also be laid at the door of the international community.

The United States, for instance, was instrumental in pushing for its independence, but was not prepared for the long term commitment required to build a functioning state.

As so often, the UN was handed the task of helping build the new nation, but without really being given the necessary financial and political backing needed to make a success of it.

No doubt UNMISS has made mistakes, chief among them, many observers believe, has been its lack of neutrality in its dealings with a factionalised government.

However, the task it faces in South Sudan is daunting.

This is a country that lacks the basic infrastructure to function. There are few decent roads, hospitals and schools, and it has few qualified civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, police or judges.

A veteran of both the US State Department and UN peacekeeping told me when the civil war first started in 2013; either you do the job properly – by which he meant putting in the resources and time required – or it’s better not to do it at all.

And it’s not as if there haven’t been enough examples of the consequences of such half-hearted nation building to learn from.

When the UN went into to Timor Leste in 1999 as it voted for independence after 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, privately both UN officials and Timorese leaders said it would need to run the country for at least 10 years to train the people and build the infrastructure it required to ensure a stable future.

In the end, despite warnings from staff on the ground, because its member states wanted to wind down their financial and military commitments, the UN handed over government to Timorese politicians after only three years, and reduced its role to a support mission.

Four years later, the country descended into chaos with police and army fighting each other for control of the capital, Dili, setting back the country’s progress right back.

The fighting in South Sudan came even sooner after independence than in Timor, and has been much worse, with an estimated 300,000 people losing their lives so far.

And when the fighting starts, what work is being done to help build up healthcare systems or open schools is usually halted as it’s just too dangerous for the civilians engaged in this work to remain, and humanitarian relief becomes the priority.

In South Sudan, the UN says it needs another $700 billion for its emergency relief work and in the past few weeks, the non-governmental organisations involved in development work have had to suspend their operations.

Tending to the immediate needs of the 4.8 million people facing severe food shortages and trying to contain a cholera outbreak – as well as restoring the ceasefire between rival factions – are taking precedence.

As things stand, the resumption of the all-important work to build a functioning state and an economy underpinning decent healthcare, schools and universities seems some way off.

Yet with a greater international commitment at the time of independence, the setbacks in South Sudan might have been avoided.

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The tyranny of the seemingly urgent: why the media neglects international development

 

George Monbiot – the environment commentator – wrote a recent cri de coeur on the failure of the media – by which I think he meant most mainstream outlets – to give sufficient coverage to climate change, despite the tumbling of global temperature records and accompanying floods and droughts that are hitting people all over the world.

He’s right of course.

It’s striking how little has been published or broadcast since last December’s United Nations Paris Climate summit agreed to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Do editors think the pledges – and that’s all they were – made in Paris are the last word on climate change?

A recent conversation I had with a former colleague, and a respected environment journalist, suggests they may.

He lamented that he just couldn’t get climate stories on – even with the record temperatures and constant flow of natural disaster stories so-beloved of those same editors.

Surely giving climate change prominent coverage is in the public interest, I observed.

Unarguable you might think, whatever your views on the causes of rising global temperatures.

But then, it’s not just climate change where mainstream media journalists are failing the public.

There is also scant coverage of sustainable development.

As I wrote last year, when all UN member states came together in a historic agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to produce a fairer world which actually has a long-term future, there was barely a peep of interest.

And things haven’t changed since then.

The first high level meeting to review progress towards the SDGs a couple of weeks ago, where 22 countries reported what they have done and plan to do, was largely ignored by the media.

If you do an internet search you’ll find stories on specialist development blogs and a few niche business news sites, but little else.

The only mainstream media outlet I could find that published anything was The Guardian, which actually has a development sub-index on its website. Although, even that merits only a qualified welcome given the Guardian gets the Gates Foundation to subsidise this coverage, suggesting even the editors there still don’t see development as deserving of much coverage purely on its own merits.

So why are journalists largely ignoring sustainable development?

Well, partly it’s because they are subject to the tyranny of the urgent over the important – there always seems to be something more immediate they judge needs reporting.

But they also fail to see development as a story because they’re prone to what I’d call a tramline mentality. There are certain kinds of stories they’re used to covering – be it political rows, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even changes in interest rates –  and they think they know how to cover them.

It means they stay in their comfort zone, but it’s a failure journalistic imagination.

How to break out of this compartmentalised thinking?

One way may be to create new indices on websites and in papers to encourage journalists to see the importance of sustainable development stories.

Many papers and news sites already have “environment” pages or indices – which is not just a way to help users navigate stories, but also, I’d argue, a reflection of how journalists categorise stories in their own minds.

So one suggestion I’ve heard – and will repeat here – is to rename those indices “people and planet”.This may help editors and reporters to think about environment and development, and their impact on people’s lives – the all-important human interest angle – as deeply entwined and interrelated.

Then there is the public interest argument.

What could be more important than the future of the planet we all depend on for our very existence?

Yet, many of the editors who respond to criticism of their coverage of the foibles – and worse – of politicians by citing the public interest (even when the scale of that coverage risks turning the public off) are the same ones who routinely ignore or underplay sustainable development.

If editors don’t see coverage of such existential matters as in the public interest, there is a more mundane, but perhaps more familiar, reason for covering the issue.

That old hoary chestnut “the way taxpayers’ money is spent”.

There has been a lot of media scrutiny over the past year in the UK of the foreign aid budget, including from outlets which, shall we say, are not well-known for their international coverage.

So there is already an appetite for covering development aid.

It’s also becoming clear that from now on much of that aid is going to be prioritised according to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goals.

So, with a bit of joining up of the dots, there may be hope that editors, who up to now have had little interest in covering the SDGs and international development, could be persuaded that there are good reasons for changing their approach.

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